As a sophomore, Laurence Bowers averaged 10.2 points and 5.7 rebounds for a Missouri team that won 23 games. Bowers started just 11 of Mizzou's 34 games, due in large part to his tendency to be more effective coming off the bench.
In the Tigers' two exhibition games this season, Bowers has put up 24.5 points and 10 rebounds per contest, despite playing only 42 total minutes. The explanation for the increased production is pretty simple.
"All you got to do is look at when Laurence was playing with one hand. This guy was almost getting double-doubles with one hand last year," Mike Anderson said. "It stands to reason as you go from your sophomore year to that junior year, much is expected of you. He's gonna be one of those guys that is the face of our program. We established that and talked about that at the beginning. I think he relishes that opportunity."
Bowers hurt his left wrist against Texas last season and played the last eight games of the year severely limited.
"It limited me, I would say a little bit, but I just didn't think about it and played through it," he said. "I didn't play with one hand. Probably one-and-a-half."
Pressed on how much it hurt his play, Bowers admitted "if I had both of my hands, I could have played better. Not making any excuses or anything, but I thought I played pretty well with it in the tournament. If I can just build off that experience with having two hands, I think we'll be okay."
But there are many reasons beyond the obvious for Bowers' increased ability. Quite simply, he is more productive because he HAS to be more productive. Bowers is no longer just one of the guys. He is perhaps THE guy for this year's Tigers, especially on the offensive end. In a pre-season meeting with the coach, Anderson told Bowers, "We need you."
"I consider myself one of the leaders on the team and so do my teammates. I've got to step up and lead not only vocally, but by example," Bowers said. "I know that I have to do more than what I did last year for us to succeed."
Despite the increased pressure to produce, Anderson says Bowers is "playing more freely" than he did a year ago. Late in the season, starting forward Justin Safford went down with a torn ACL. Keith Ramsey was a useful piece of the puzzle, but brought more to the table defensively than offensively. Steve Moore averaged just 10 minutes and 1.1 points as a sophomore.
This year, Bowers lines up not only with a healthy Safford, but perhaps more importantly with junior college transfer Ricardo Ratliffe.
"I like what you're saying because now you're talking about other people," Anderson said. "You're just talking about the forwards, and how about the guards? To me, that is the key for our basketball team. Who do you key in on?"
Bowers has consistently talked about Ratliffe making his job easier by drawing double-teams in the post. However, if the two exhibition games are any indication, it may be Bowers drawing extra attention from opposing defenses. Ratliffe is averaging 11 points and 7.5 rebounds a game, but has eight turnovers and has made just six of 16 shots.
"I was really down on myself, honestly," Ratliffe said. "I'm still finding my way in the offense and I've just got to keep moving without the ball and stop thinking so much on the court. Every time I get the ball, I'm thinking, 'I've got to make this, I've got to make this.' Just stop thinking so much and just find my rhythm and play like I know I can play.
"I've got such big hype and I'm trying to live up to it. I've just got to stay relaxed, stay humble and play the way I know I can play."
The expectations are lofty for the Central Florida Community College transfer. He was dubbed the No. 1 junior college player in the country last year by Rivals.com. He has already been tabbed as the Big 12 Conference's pre-season newcomer of the year. The adjustment from junior college to big-time Division One basketball isn't always an easy one.
"You're used to playing junior college where you can just dominate," Ratliffe said. "Here, it's hard. It's challenging. People are not just gonna give you everything."
"There's a learning curve at this level. The pace, the strength of these guys. And I'm not talking about just two or three guys. I'm talking about every guy on the floor," Anderson said. "Some adjust a lot quicker than the others. I can say it from an example, being a junior college player myself. It took a while to get used to Division One basketball."
But the Tigers insist the expectations and hype heaped upon Ratliffe are not unfair.
"He's definitely, in my mind, going to be the Big 12 newcomer of the year," Bowers said. "I see him every day in practice, I bang against him, and he's pretty much a beast like we always said. I think as the year goes on, he'll show everybody that he is the number one juco player in the nation and it's gonna translate to D-1."
"I think I made it hard on myself," Ratliffe said of the expectations. "I should have just ignored that stuff, just did what I like to do and play basketball to the best of my ability. But, you know, I kind of let it get to me and I haven't been myself. I've been getting in the gym, getting shots up on the off days, still trying to get in here and get back right."
For now, it is Ratliffe who appears set to come off the bench, serving as an understudy to Bowers and Safford. While Ratliffe is nearly the same age as the two upperclassmen, Bowers and Safford have played at this level before; Ratliffe has not.
"I look up to Laurence and Justin, try to ask them questions like where am I supposed to be? When I get down on myself, they're the first ones beside me like, 'Keep your head up, don't worry about that,'" Ratliffe said. "I really enjoy playing beside (Bowers) because I know if I don't get the rebound, he's gonna get the rebound. If I don't get the ball in the post, he's gonna get the ball in the post and he's gonna score…It's real beneficial playing with another post that's on the same level you are."
The Tigers hope it all adds up to a more balanced attack than a season ago. In 2009-10, five of Missouri's top seven scorers were guards. While three of those five return this season, it is the front-court trio of Safford, Bowers and Ratliffe who have pre-season optimism at an all-time high in the Anderson era.
"I think we have a little more depth off the bench, with a guy like Ricardo, who's got a little more experience," Safford said. "Steve is progressing every single day, a guy like John Underwood and Laurence Bowers obviously. I think there's a little more balance in that and then, the guard spot, we've got tons of great guards."
"When you talk about balance, you've got somebody that you can throw it in there to," Anderson said. "When you have to go into a half court set, you got to have some guys you can throw it in there to, and we've got some guys out there, I feel like…That, to me, is another option you have and we'll utilize it to our advantage."
The first game that counts for the Tigers is tomorrow night. Mizzou tips off at 7 p.m. against Western Illinois.
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